Finding Refuge, 75 Years Ago, and Today

Amanda Morales (Photo by Marisa Scheinfeld via The Forward)

It’s possible to look at the circumstances of Amanda Morales, the Guatemalan facing deportation who sought sanctuary and has lived with her children in the Holyrood Episcopal Church in Washington Heights since last August, and trace a line back 75 years to the welcome and protection given refugees from Nazi Germany in the same neighborhood. In a long article published in The Forward before Passover entitled “Slaves In Egypt, Refugees In America: An Exodus Story In 8 Chapters,” Adam Langer speaks with Morales, Holyrood’s pastor Rev. Luis Barrios, and Rabbi Jeffrey Gale, the current rabbi of Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation, which is just a few minutes’ walk from Holyrood.

Rabbi Gale tells me that Amanda Morales’s plight reminds him of the time he spent in the early 1980s in the former Soviet Union meeting with Jewish dissidents, including one who’d been arrested for teaching Hebrew. “Two of the people I saw there wound up in the Gulag,” he says. “What’s the difference here? Yuri Andropov was premier there; what’s our excuse? Why does ICE have to act like the KGB?”

The Forward’s Langer draws on an article, written in Yiddish, that ran 75 years ago in The Forward and was uncovered by the paper’s archivist, Chana Pollack.

This short, poignant article by Simon Weber that Chana Pollack has translated from Yiddish into English, tells of a Seder that was held at Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation, the same congregation that Jeffrey Gale now leads. The Seder was attended by approximately 100 child refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe. Some of the children had made their way to Washington Heights from England via the Kindertransport, in which unaccompanied Jewish minors fleeing the Nazis were granted admission to the country by the British government.

In a traditional Seder, a child asks the others at the table the “Four Questions” about the purpose of the ceremony; afterward, grownups provide the exceedingly long answer. But here in the Heights, the Exodus was told and acted out almost exclusively by children. And the parallels between their lives and those of the Haggadah’s exiled Jews seemed incredibly timely.

A boy named Max Frankel, age 13, recited the Kiddush — the blessing over the wine.

Frankel’s parents were Polish citizens, but he was born in Germany, where the family ran a store that had opened only a few weeks before Hitler became Germany’s chancellor. Max and his mother had secured passage to America via Holland, but Max’s father had been captured by the Russians. At the time of the Seder, as far as Frankel knew, his father was in Siberia.

“When Max stood up with the wine glass in his hand and started chanting in the traditional melody, one didn’t need to be religious to be transported,” Weber wrote. “He too had a past filled with migration and persecution. The role he acted in the Exodus story was not foreign to him.”

The article from 75 years ago goes on to talk about other children at the Seder, many of whom did not know what had happened to their parents. For Langer, the story held a mystery he set out to solve: What happened to those children? He tracked down the boys quoted in the article – Max Frankel, Werner Ulrich and Alfred Berg – and spoke with them about the experiences of coming to America and growing up here.

Go to The Forward to read about their challenges and accomplishments, and then read about more recent immigrants, including a Vietnamese refugee, Be Van Nguyen, sponsored by the Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation in the early 1980s, who The Forward’s Langer also managed to track down.

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